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Tavora affair

The Tavora affair was a political scandal of the 18th century Portuguese court. The events triggered by the attempted murder of king Joseph I of Portugal in 1758 ended with the public execution of the entire Tavora family and its closest relatives in 1759. Some historians interpret the whole affair as an attempt by the prime minister Sebastião de Melo (the later Marquis of Pombal) to limit the growing powers of the families of the high nobility.

Table of contents
1 Prelude
2 The Tavora affair
3 Discussion
4 Aftermath


In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake on November 1 1755, that destroyed the royal palace, King Joseph I of Portugal lived in a huge complex of tents and barracks installed in Ajuda, on of the outskirts of the city. This was the centre of all political and social Portuguese life.

Although with less spectacular accommodations, the tents of Ajuda were the home of a court as glamorous and rich as the Versailles of Louis XV of France. There the king lived surrounded by his staff, led by the prime minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, and was entertained by his peers, the Portuguese high nobility.

The prime minister was a strict man, born the son of a country squire, with a grudge against the old nobility that despised him. Clashes between him and the nobles were frequent and tolerated by the king, who trusted Sebastião de Melo for his competent leadership after the earthquake, and who was held in contempt by his peers.

Joseph I was married to Mariana Vitoria of Borbón, princess of Spain, and had four daughters. Despite an attested happy family life (the king loved his daughters and enjoyed playing with them and taking them to nature walks), Joseph I had a favourite mistress: Teresa Leonor, wife of Luis Bernardo, the heir of the Tavora family.

Marchioness Leonor of Tavora and her husband Francisco Assis, Count of Alvor (former viceroy of India), were the heads of one of the most powerful families in the kingdom, connected to the houses of Aveiro, Cadaval and Alorna. They were also among the bitterest enemies of Sebastião de Melo. Leonor of Tavora was a political woman, preoccupied with the affairs of the kingdom, handed, in her perspective, to an upstart with no education. She was also a devoted Catholic, with strong affiliations to the Jesuits, having one of them, Gabriel Malagrida, as her personal confessor.

The Tavora affair

In the night of September 3 1758, Joseph I was riding an unmarked carriage in a secondary and unfrequented road in the outskirts of Lisbon. The king was returning from an evening with his mistress to the tents of Ajuda. Somewhere along the way two to three men intercepted the carriage and fired on its occupants. Joseph I was shot in an arm, his driver was also badly wounded, but both survived and returned to Ajuda.

Immediately Sebastião de Melo took control of the situation. Concealing the attack and the king's injuries, he proceeded with a swift enquiry. A few days afterwards, two men were arrested for the shootings and tortured. The men confessed their guilt and stated that were following orders of the Tavora family, which was plotting to put the Duke of Aveiro in the throne. Both were hanged the following day, even before the attempted regicide was made public.

In the following weeks the Marchioness Leonor of Tavora, her husband, the Count of Alvor, all their sons, daughters and grandchildren were imprisoned. The conspirators, the Duke of Aveiro and the Tavoras' sons-in-law, the Marquis of Alorna and the Count of Atouguia, were arrested with their families. Gabriel Malagrida, the Jesuit confessor of Leonor of Tavora was also arrested.

They were all accused of high treason and attempted murder of the king. The evidence presented in their common trial was very simple: a) the confessions of the executed killers; b) the murder weapon that belonged to the Duke of Aveiro and c) the assumption that only the Tavoras would have known the whereabouts of the king in that evening, since he was returning from a liaison with Teresa of Tavora, who was also arrested.

The Tavoras denied all charges but were eventually sentenced to death. Their estates were confiscated by the crown, their name erased from the peerage and their coat-of-arms outlawed.

The original sentence ordered the execution of all of them, including women and children. Only the intervention of Queen Mariana and Maria Francisca, the heiress to the throne, saved most of them.

The Marchioness, however, was not spared. She and her other defendants who had been sentenced to death were publicly tortured and executed on January 13 1759 in a field near Lisbon. The king was present along with his bewildered court. The Tavoras were their peers and kin, but the prime minister wanted the lesson to be learned.

Afterwards, the ground was salted to prevent future growth of vegetation. Nowadays, this field is a square of Lisbon, called Terreiro Salgado, the salty ground.

Gabriel Malagrida was burned at the stake a few days afterwards and the Jesuit Order declared outlaws. All its estates were confiscated and all the Jesuits expelled from Portuguese territory, both in Europe and the colonies. (The movie The Mission portraits the expulsion of a Jesuit community from the Amazonian forest of Brazil, then a Portuguese possession.) The Alorna family and the daughters of the Duke of Aveiro were sentenced to life imprisonment in Monasteries and Convents.

Sebastião de Melo was made Count of Oeiras for his competent handling of the affair, and later, in 1770, was promoted to Marquis of Pombal, the name by which he is known today.


The guilt or innocence of the Tavoras is still debated today by Portuguese historians. On one hand, the unpleasant relations between the high nobility and the king are well documented. The lack of a male heir to the throne displeased most of them and, indeed, the Duke of Aveiro was an open option.

On the other hand, some refer to a coincidence: with the conviction of the Tavoras and Jesuits, all the enemies of Sebastião de Melo disappeared and the nobility was tamed. Moreover, the Tavoras' defendants argue that the attempted murder of Joseph I might have been a random attack by highway robbers, since the king was travelling without guard or signal of his rank on a dangerous Lisbon road. Another clue to innocence is the fact that none of the Tavoras or their allies tried to escape from Portugal in the days following the attack.


Guilty or not, the Tavora executions were a devastating event to Portugal. In a time when death penalty was already in disuse, the execution of an entire prestigious family was a shock. The future queen Maria I of Portugal was so affected by the events that she abolished the death penalty (except in wartime) as soon as she came to the throne. Portugal was thus the first country in the world to do so.

The Queen's dislike for her father's prime minister was absolute. She removed him from all his powers and exiled him from Lisbon. A royal decree further reinforced the banishment, stating that the Marquis of Pombal was forbidden to come within 20 miles of the Queen.

See also: Marquis of Pombal - Joseph I of Portugal - Maria I of Portugal